Ulm University is rolling out a digital summer semester

22. April 2020

The Ulm University’s lecture halls will stay empty over the next few weeks. On 20 April, for the first time ever, University President Professor Michael Weber welcomed more than 400 first-year students solely in digital form and provided an outlook on the summer semester: as many courses as possible will be offered online and alternatives are also being planned for examinations. ‘The corona pandemic poses a great challenge to the University as well. We are using this situation as an opportunity to further digitise our teaching in order to ensure that our students can successfully continue their studies and to minimise any adverse effects,’ says Weber.

Ulm University has been in shutdown since March 19 and is operating in emergency mode – preparations for the digital summer semester has been nonetheless in full swing across numerous home offices. The Communication and Information Centre (kiz), which is responsible for the IT and library services at the University, has been working intensively on the expansion of the technical systems for online teaching: the online learning platform Moodle has been expanded, for instance; new options for interactive teaching, such as video conferencing with a large number of participants, have also been established. The aim is to maintain the course schedule of the summer semester and have online versions of lectures, seminars and classes up and running at the scheduled time.

Teaching staff at Ulm University, however, have varying degrees of experience in online teaching. For online newbies, the Centre for Teaching Development (ZLE) or the Competence Centre eEducation of the Medical Faculty are often the first points of contact. Over the past few weeks, numerous so-called digitisation advisors from all faculties have registered with the ZLE: these volunteers offer advice and support to teaching staff in order to make the transition to online teaching as easy as possible.
The exclusive use of synchronous formats such as live streams of lectures, however, is something the ZLE advises against in times of overburdened networks. A more practical way is to pre-record presentations and to upload them and other learning materials to the online platform so that students can download these and work on them at home.

Online forums are made available for discussions and to exchange documents. Group work can be replaced by jointly created wikis or glossaries. ‘To keep students motivated, they should receive regular feedback on their learning progress. The quiz function of the Moodle platform is ideal for this purpose, or the students complete scheduled tasks which can then be assessed and discussed,’ explains Dr. Tatjana Spaeth, Director of the ZLE. Students will be updated in due time via the University’s website and other channels on what the online versions of their courses will look like.

Online pioneers and digital excursions

In the corona crisis, teaching staff benefit from the experience of several online pioneers at Ulm University. The School of Advanced Professional Studies (SAPS), for instance, which offers continuing professional education, has been focusing on digital study formats for many years. The Institute of Psychology and Education has recorded 30 lectures over the last summer semester, which can now be used. The kiz provides digital course reserves (Semesterapparate) and informs about the digital releases of textbooks and journals to compensate for the closure of the library.
It will, however, be challenging to find equivalent online solutions for laboratory courses, courses of the Medical Faculty that involve contact with patients, or excursions. Where possible, these formats should be moved to the second half of the summer semester and theoretical study content should be brought forward. Unless teachers can come up with creative alternatives: biologist and digitisation advisor Dr. Philipp von Wrangell, for instance, is planning an online excursion: ‘The excursion “spring flowers” is particularly suited for an educational video, as there is only a limited number of species to be expected: I simply take the camera to a suitable area, document relevant species and provide additional information. Once the video is uploaded to the learning platform, I can discuss it with my students – and I give them the opportunity to reproduce the excursion on their own, in the wild, using the GPS data provided.’

Examinations, of course, are also part of the teaching process. The option to conduct doctoral or habilitation examinations and other final oral examinations via video conferencing has already been made available. Whether this form of examination will be expanded remains to be seen over the course of the summer semester. Furthermore, written exams could be replaced by homework or other online-based assessments.
Medical students are granted a variety of exemptions, such as the possibility to commence their practical year (Praktisches Jahr) before the M2 exam, with which they obtain their medical license.

Current developments at Ulm University suggest that the majority of this summer semester will be held online. Even if classroom teaching might be possible in a few weeks’ time, digital teaching does have its perks: students can work through the often multimedia-based material at their own pace and thus optimise their time and self-management. ‘I would like to thank all teaching staff who are preparing a digital semester and creating online versions of their courses with great dedication. Together with the ZLE, the Competence Centre eEducation and the kiz we can create teaching solutions with added value so that students come out of this digital semester stronger,’ says Professor Olga Pollatos, Vice President for Education at Ulm University.

The next few weeks will show what the summer semester at the University will look like exactly. One thing is certain: courses will initially be delivered online (photo: Bingmann, Ulm University)